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Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish… and Women

By Nicholas Rombes.

Tom McCarthy, Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish (New York Review Books, 2017)


Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish is a womanless book, or nearly so (the final and most fitfully alive essay is “Kathy Acker’s Infidel Heteroglossia”). Tom McCarthy’s focus in these pages—the jangled, cross-signaled, nameless zone between modernism and postmodernism—is male: James Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, Joseph Conrad, Gerhard Richter, Vladimir Nabokov, Roland Barthes, William Faulkner, J. G. Ballard, Don DeLillo, David Lynch, Georges Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Franz Kafka. The book hangs itself—and this execution succeeds—with a noose fashioned from these artists’ finest lines.

McCarthy’s observations, as ever, come in the form of the glinting assemblage, a bricolage of voices set in conversation with one another. The essays are at their best and strangest when the authorial voice itself seems a bit peeved, even pissed off, and this comes through most strongly in “Get Real, or What Jellyfish Have to Tell Us About Literature,” originally published a few years ago in the London Review of Books. Frustrated with the persistent debates in which “a realism which is realistic is set against an avant-garde which isn’t”—Franzen versus Marcus, in other words—McCarthy reminds us not only that realism itself is a literary convention that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also that what many postmodernists dismissed as naive nineteenth-century realism was anything but. “The biggest paradox here,” McCarthy writes, “is that the nineteenth-century realists seem to have taken a counter-realist impulse much further than twentieth-century anti-realists.” Although his examples are Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert, he could have just as easily named Henry James, Edith Wharton, or Frank Norris, whose McTeague (1899) is realistic only in the sense that it uses recognizable words:

The people about the house and the clerks at the provision stores often remarked that Trina’s fingertips were swollen and the nails purple as though they had been shut in a door. Indeed, this was the explanation she gave. The fact of the matter was that McTeague, when he had been drinking, used to bite them, crunching and grinding them with his immense teeth, always ingenious enough to remember which were the sorest. Sometimes he extorted money from her by this means, but as often as not he did it for his own satisfaction.

And hers too, it turns out. Realism always turns out to be just another word for what an artist chooses to reveal, and the finger crunching here is a revelation, a detail all the more unreal for its appearance in a basic, matter-of-fact presentation.

Would it be uncharitable to suggest that McCarthy is stronger as a novelist rather than as a critic, an essayist, or a theorist? His two most remarkable books, Remainder and Satin Island, are novels, and while it would be going too far to say that they are novels in name only, since they contain events, plots, characters, settings, dialogue, all temporally structured, it’s a gamble worth taking to suggest just that: they are novels in name only, which perhaps only reveals the poverty (or genius?) of our market-based, generic system of categorizing and promoting art. Satin Island involves a character (a corporate anthropologist) whose job it is to write a “Great Report,” a report on knowledge such that it contains everything. The narrator comes to realize, however, that in the digital-political-corporate surveillance state that we ourselves have willingly constructed, all activity, all knowledge, even all traces of knowledge are already being archived:

Nothing ever goes away. . . . Pondering these facts, a new spectre, an even more grotesque realization, presented itself to me: the truly terrifying thought wasn’t that the Great Report might be un-writable, but–quite the opposite–that it had already been written. Not by a person, nor even by some nefarious cabal, but simply by a neutral and indifferent binary system that had given rise to itself, moved by itself and would perpetuate itself.

The passage, and the novel, are so powerful and fresh because they come at the topic askance, not from the angle of a cultural theorist writing cultural theory (like the essays of Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish) but from the angle of a cultural theorist writing fiction. Because characters in novels who spout only theory aren’t viable, the novelist-as-theorist must use the framework, structure, and conventions of narrative, the very apparatus that theory is designed to demystify and dismantle. That tension, and the reader’s feeling of being once-removed from the true subject of the novel, is what makes the novel a more powerful, and potentially deconstructive theoretical machine than “theory” itself.

Which brings us back to Kathy Acker; but not quite, because the most fiction-like essay in this collection also happens to be the most nostalgic. “Kool Thing, or Why I Want to Fuck Patty Hearst” was originally published, in 2008, in the anthology The Empty Page: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, which means that perhaps the essay isn’t an essay proper at all, but a short story:

I imagine her hairs bristling as she tells her parents that they’re bourgeois pigs and that she’ll never come back home; her voice crackling with excitement as she reads onto a tape the revolutionary statement that will soon be played on every radio and television station in the country.

Patty Hearst

So strange and true, the narrator’s nostalgia for 1974. This was the last gasp of revolutionary vigor before the big chill, before the slow retrenchment that would culminate six years later in the landslide election of Ronald Reagan and the bourgeois pigs who would actually be transformed into objects of sentimental desire in the films of John (Johnny) Hughes, which now does bring us back to Kathy Acker, whose Blood and Guts in High School actually saw publication the same year (1984) as the release of Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, and in whose pages there are these lines: “We went to the movies. Johnny paid for everything.”

Acker provokes McCarthy’s sharpest, most surprising writing, leading him on to Donna Haraway, whose 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” laps at the edges of McCarthy’s thought throughout the book, although this isn’t made clear until near the very end, the second-to-last-page, in fact, where, referring to Acker’s Empire of the Senseless, he writes:

Here, Acker’s thought dovetails with that of Donna Haraway, who writes in “A Cyborg Manifesto” . . . that “communication sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move–the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears.” Against this specter Haraway proposes not a luddite but a “cyborg politics,” which would be a struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication.

Written in the wake of post-history and post-theory, McCarthy’s essays think through the ways—and this is going to sound very old-fashioned—we might re-inject meaning and a sense of shape into many of the movements and writers that postmodernism has written off. If catastrophic event-scenes like 9/11 reintroduced the Real into an intellectual landscape where it seemed to have been extinguished in the void of non-history, then the works of McCarthy and, though their lines of approach are various and toggle through various genres, writers like Deborah Levy, McKenzie Wark, Will Self, and Rachel Kushner, do a strange turnabout, gazing back at the super-structures of Modernism—fragmentation, alienation, temporal dislocation—that the postmodernists thought they had ironized out of meaning.

Kathy Acker’s “Blood and Guts in High School” (manuscript, Duke University Libraries)


My first exposure to McCarthy, around 2007, involved a person named Rachel, or at least a person who claimed her name was Rachel. She introduced me to Remainder by way of a television antenna, though it was a connection I would untangle, and even then only incompletely, years later. The crazy antenna on the warehouse, she had said. We were in Detroit, on the west side, near the remnants of what had been the 50-acre Lincoln Motor Company Plant at the intersection of Warren and Livernois Avenues. Then she said something like this:

There’s actually more than a dozen or so but you can only see one—the tallest one—from the street. The one you can see, that’s one of the old ones from the regime that we repurposed, attaching that circle with the X inside as a symbol, a reminder of what our lives used to be like in the old days, Acker-trapped. A person standing with her legs apart and her outstretched arms above her head, forming an X, her feet and hands pushing against the boundaries. They’re scattered all around Detroit once you begin to notice them. But that particular antenna is special because it’s more than a symbol, it’s a functioning symbol. It was actually my friend (and so-called terrorist) Nero who came up with the idea to simply re-broadcast as much of the regime’s archives as remain on a low-watt station. You need a transistor radio to pick it up. It’s amazing how much crap the regime saved, audio files upon audio files of speeches by the most unimaginative and boring regime functionaries. You remember them, right? Growing up they were everywhere.

Somehow Rachel had worked into her antenna theories something about Remainder, although the way she referenced it was as if we had already talked about it, as though it were a shared text and she were recalling a previous conversation. I tried to play along but then she blurted out, Wait. You haven’t read it, have you? When I admitted I hadn’t (why did it feel like an admission, as if I had done something wrong?) she said I’d led her on, deceived her. I tried to backtrack, to explain that I only wanted not to offend her. But you have offended me! she said. You’ve offended me and the author of Remainder!

“You mean Paul McC . . .,” I’d tried to say, stumbling over his name.

You don’t even know his name! McCarthy!

It all unraveled so fast, just when I thought we were getting somewhere with the antenna business, which turned out to be a much more serious and involved subterfuge I couldn’t, at the time, even fathom.

That, more or less, is how I came across Remainder, although actually getting hold of the book presented its own problems. “What will we look forward to when we no longer need to look forward in order to arrive?” Paul Virilio once asked, and I asked myself a version of this same question when the evidence suggested that Rachel might have been right, that I had, in fact, already read Remainder, or at least parts of Remainder, enough of it at least to be able to hold a conversation about the book with Rachel that she remembered, apparently, and that I did not. Looking back, I’d like to believe that, if only I’d been able to get hold of the book. This must have been (it was, in fact) around the same time that one of the essays collected in Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish appeared, “The Geometry of the Pressant,” which supposedly appeared in 2008 as both an introduction to a reprint of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy, and then again in Artforum, although I’m sure I read it somewhere else. It contains this sentence:

The effect of stating the hero’s subjectivity negatively, by implication rather than affirmation, is eerie and troubling: his gaze becomes like that of “The Shape” in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or the entity in David Lynch’s Lost Highway who stalks a maritally troubled house at night armed with a camera.

And it was this movie in fact, Lost Highway, which had served as the medium for Rachel and I meeting, ten years earlier. It was Lost Highway too that had led me to Detroit, through Rachel, who had written about it so passionately (and yet with such cold reserve) in some online forum that, looking back on it, it was really a trap, one that was dependent on me to spring it, though. I still don’t know the precise mechanism of this trap, or how long ago it must have been laid; nor was I aware how much it had to do with certain lines—certain predictive lines—in Remainder, fragments like this:

. . . to be real—to become fluent, natural, to cut out the detour that sweeps us around what’s fundamental to events, preventing us from touching their core: the detour that makes us all second-hand and second-rate.

It was akin to Rachel’s fascination with the Detroit antennae, which transmitted signals that, depending on their gain, could reach very far, farther than one might imagine, but whose signals still reached us through a detour, when what we needed was raw access to the signal itself. I won’t go so far as to say that McCarthy’s writing at that time was as close as we could get, in language, anyway, to the source of the signal, the signal that transports data, the signal that must travel—and thus change—before it reaches us, so that we can never know it, the source, never experience it in real time, simultaneous with itself. The joy of certain things and people in your life—Rachel, the writings of Tom McCarthy—are that they bring you closer than you ever thought possible to that source.

Nicholas Rombes is the author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones (from Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series), and Cinema in the Digital Age (Columbia)He also serves as a contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine and is a professor in Detroit.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017.